|Central American University - UCA
Number 136 | Noviembre 1992
Ethnic Communities of the Pacific and North-Central Nicaragua
Marcos Membreño Idiáquez
Denied Existence; Obstinate Persistence?
In this essay by Marcos Membreño, sociology professor at the Central American University, Managua, Nicaragua, winner of the first prize in this year's envío writers contest, we offer his preliminary results of a socio-anthropological investigation of various communities of the Pacific and north-central Nicaragua, whose common characteristic is that they define themselves as "indigenous."
We have a two-fold objective. The first is to show that, against all appearances, these are ethnic communities in the strict sense of the term, possessing certain homologous internal structures to those we find, for example, in the ethnic groups living in the Atlantic Coast of our country. This is very important to us from a political point of view, because it reveals that all the ethnic communities of Nicaragua, beyond the linguistic differences or geographical distances that separate them, share objective socio-cultural structures, which could become a solid common basis for joining together at a national level in the struggle for their specifically ethnic demands.
Our second objective is to present an overall picture of the current situation of the ethnic communities on this side of the country, so as to create an awareness of the serious problems they suffer. We also consider it important to mention the new political horizons that the creation of the National Federation of Indigenous Communities of Nicaragua (FENACIN) will open, not only in the life of the ethnic groups but also in our country's political scene. FENACIN is essentially emerging as an initiative of the ethnic groups from the Pacific and central-north regions.
Absence of these ethnic groups in Sandinista legislationIn an examination of the content of the laws and decrees passed by the Sandinista government to create legal norms for the country's ethnic communities, the absence of any express reference to the ethnic groups of the Pacific and center-north stands out. All of these laws and decrees only refer, explicitly or implicitly, to the ethnic groups of the Atlantic.
As its title indicates, the renowned "Statute of Autonomy of the Regions of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua" (La Gaceta, October 30, 1987) is dedicated exclusively to the coastal ethnic groups.
To give another example, the Sandinista government's Municipal Law (La Gaceta, August 17, 1988) dedicates a chapter exclusively to the municipal ordering of the ethnic communities of the Atlantic Coast, but we find no chapter, or even an article, aimed at providing norms for the municipal life of the ethnic groups in the various Pacific and center-north regions.
In both laws, cited only for illustrative purposes, the ethnic communities on this side of the country seem to have been absent from the minds of legislators and FSLN leaders during the revolutionary years. The lack of any explicit legal references to, or, for that matter, any juridical treatment of, the ethnic groups of the Pacific and center-north equivalent to that of the Atlantic communities, would appear to reveal two things: one, the ethnic groups on this side of the country never were as important to the Sandinista revolution geopolitically as, for various reasons, were those of the Atlantic; and two, high-level Sandinista government officials were not convinced that the Pacific and north-central communities were really "ethnic communities" and thus did not consider that they merited the special treatment given the communities of the Atlantic. Looking retrospectively at the Sandinista government's ethno-legal dispositions, both these considerations seem valid.
The ethnic groups on this side of the country did not constitute an important geopolitical and military problem for the Sandinista revolution, whereas the demands of the ethnic groups of the Atlantic—at first poorly understood and even repressed by the FSLN—were used by the US government to mobilize the coast communities against the revolution and thus destabilize it. In such circumstances, the conflicts between the FSLN and the ethnic Atlantic coast groups served US efforts to delegitimize and isolate the revolutionary government internationally. Responding to this complex and sensitive situation, the Sandinista government was forced to review and considerably reformulate its policy toward the Atlantic communities, the culmination of which was the above-mentioned autonomy statute.
It seems clear that in those years many FSLN leaders were not as convinced that the communities of the Pacific and center-north who call themselves "indigenous" really were so. We know numerous anecdotes of Sandinista leaders who viewed this self-proclamation by certain peasant communities as an opportunistic political tactic, the goal of which was to wrest certain prerogatives from the Sandinista state, party or mass organizations. In their eyes, these communities, unlike the Miskitos, Sumus or Ramas, do not possess all the characteristics that appear in an authentic ethnic community: a racial phenotype (skin color, etc.) different from whites and mestizos, a language other than Spanish, possession of communal lands in opposition to private ownership of the soil, inhabitants of jungle or semi-jungle areas who practice hunting and gathering with rudimentary implements (such as bows and arrows), etc. Even now, after the electoral defeat, some Sandinista leaders maintain this view.
Since the ethnic groups in the Pacific and central-north did not have all of these characteristics, it is understandable that many FSLN leaders did not see their members as authentically "indigenous," but simply as "mestizos"—or, at most, as "mestizos who tried to pass as indigenous." There was thus no reason for the Sandinista state to design socioeconomic and cultural policies that would treat these people any differently than the other mestizo peasants, artisans, workers or employees living in these regions. In other words, these supposed "indigenous" should be treated as socioeconomic classes or strata (peasantry, artisans, etc.) and not as ethnic communities. At best, many Sandinistas saw the supposed "indigenous" character of the ethnic groups on this side of the country as part of the "national folklore" (the case of artisans who worked in ceramics, palm and fabric, for example), or as part of an ideological-political myth that too quickly reduced "indigenous rebellion" (the cases of Sutiava and Monimbó) to the FSLN struggle against the Somoza dictatorship.
The curious part is that this stereotype, which denies the ethnic character of communities that call themselves "indigenous," can be found not only among certain Sandinista leaders but also in broad circles of intellectuals (historians, economists, anthropologists and the like). The latter consider that those ethnic communities that managed to survive the colonial period were later destroyed by the liberal regimes and by the profound crossbreeding that occurred in these regions due to the demographic and cultural transformations spurred by the expansion of capitalist trade relations.
With slight variations, many leaders of communities and ethnic organizations in the Atlantic Coast also believe the stereotype that the "indigenous" of the Pacific and central-north regions are simply "mestizos." This has obviously created some obstacles to the creation of ethnic organizations at a national level, in which ethnic groups from all parts of the country can participate together and without mutual reticence.
Clans and lineages: Cohesive structural elementsMore than a dozen communities, some rural and others urban, whose members openly and with profound pride define themselves as "indigenous" still exist in the Pacific and north-central part of the country. There are probably more; some leaders of ethnic communities in the Pacific and center-north mentioned to us the existence of other indigenous communities, such as Tonallí (in Chinandega) and Nindirí (in Masaya), for example, but we have not yet been able to corroborate this information. In the course of our research, we have made an inventory of the following communities:
If we accept the population estimates of the leaders of several of these indigenous communities, their total population could reach between 80,000 and 100,000 individuals. Given the absence of censuses or reliable population registers, it is risky to accept a specific figure. Some consider that the figures we use here are too conservative, and perhaps they are, but at this time no one can provide proof one way or the other. (The preparation of a census of the total indigenous population of the Pacific and center-north is one of the first requests made to us by the leaders of the indigenous communities.)
Be this as it may, it is certain that kinship relations appear as one of the principal cohesive and structural elements of all of these communities. These relations unite not only relatives in a direct line (grandparents-grandchildren, parents-children, etc.) or those in a collateral line (aunts and uncles to nephews and nieces, etc.), but also those related by marriage (parents-in-law with children-in-law or sisters-and brothers-in-law). The cohesion that kinship creates among these individuals is expressed in actions of solidarity and mutual cooperation, which take the form of a reciprocal "flow" of help in money, work, personal services of all sorts, and the like. These ties of solidarity are manifested both horizontally, between relatives on the same generational plane, and vertically, that is, between relatives who belong to different generations. Participation in more or less regular collective ritual practices (festivals celebrated by the whole community in honor of a particular saint, etc.), ties of "ritual kinship" (godparents-godchildren, parents-godparents, etc.) and the ties created by virtue of living in the same neighborhood, district or town, evidently tend to reinforce the level of cohesion among the groups of relatives existing in each community.
Starting at the most micro-social level, these kinship relations make possible the creation of nuclear families (made up of parents and children) or, much more frequently, of extended families (consisting of a nuclear family base to which other relatives are added). These two types of families may live in a single house or, as often happens, in contiguous houses or at least ones that are very close to each other. At a higher level, we find a form of kinship grouping, whose size considerably exceeds the limits of the extended family. We refer to what in anthropology is known by the term "kinfolk": a wide network of relatives in which the definition of the relatives that form part of the network depends on the individual taken as the reference point. This individual, technically known as the "ego," can occupy any position in the network, be it grandfather, uncle, brother, etc.
In the communities we have studied to date, this "ego," together with his brothers and/or sisters, is the focal point around which these kinfolk networks are structured. In relatively large indigenous communities, such as those of Jinotega, Sutiava and Matagalpa, for example, these kinfolk networks can easily be made up of more than 200 or 300 relatives. These same kinfolk are precisely those who comprise, if I may be allowed the expression, the "natural social base" of the various instances of political leadership (councils of elders, for example) or ritual leadership (confraternities, etc.) that organize and preside over the internal life of the communities. As a matter of fact, the members of these kinfolk networks make up the mass of faithful who participate in the town's religious festivals or the mass of those governed by the "indigenous" authorities.
Family and kinfolk networks are not, however, distinctive family groupings pertaining only to the communities that call themselves "indigenous." We find these networks in virtually all regions of the country, from the most urbanized zones to the most rural ones, and in the most diverse social sectors, from those with the lowest incomes to sectors of the bourgeoisie and the so-called middle classes. According to the results gathered from our investigation, the family grouping forms that distinguish the communities in the Pacific and central-north that call themselves "indigenous" seem rather to be those of "lineage" and "clan."
Lineage. A lineage is made up of all those persons who are descendants of a same ancestor and whose filial links with that ancestor can be empirically demonstrated. Unlike the family and kinfolk networks, lineage is composed not only of living relatives descended from the same ancestor, but also includes those who are now deceased, whether recently or even some centuries ago; what both the living and deceased relatives have in common is that all are descended from the same ancestor or ancestors.
Lineage thus becomes the social structure responsible for guaranteeing the continuity and permanence of the community throughout time, linking successive generations of relatives to each other. We know, for example, that in the indigenous community of Sutiava, various lineages exist that are descendants of families that belonged to the indigenous nobility during the colonial period and filled the function of authorities of the indigenous community during the past and present centuries. Most of the members of Sutiava's current Council of Elders belong to those old lineages.
It is extremely important to point out that belonging or not belonging to one of the community lineages inexorably defines who is a member of the community with full rights and who is not.
All those individuals, men or women, who belong to one of the lineages of the indigenous community are full community members and are considered as authentically indigenous. Now, from what we have said, the following principle of ethnic affiliation emerges by logical negation, and is fully in effect in the communities studied: all those men or women who do not belong to any of the indigenous community's lineages also do not belong to the community and, therefore, are considered "non-indigenous."
It is clear, then, that in the indigenous communities of the Pacific and central-north, an individual's "Indianness" or, better yet, "ethnicity" is defined by that person's belonging to a lineage or clan. We will return to the latter in a moment.
In the majority of the communities that we have inventoried, an individual's ascription to his or her respective lineage can be made through the paternal side in one generation, or the maternal side in the following generation. Changing "sides" in the type of filiation each generation is one way to perpetuate the lineage in cases of "mixed marriages," that is, unions between a man or woman who belongs to one of the lineages of the community and another who belongs to none of them. In this way, the indigenous community considers the children of this type of marital union as authentically indigenous and not as non-indigenous or "mestizo," the widely used expression in Nicaraguan society.
By this filiation system, ethnic communities on this side of the country recognize as indigenous only the child of the mixed marriage, but not the parent who is not a member of one of the community's lineages. Thus, we find families made up of a "non-indigenous" father (who does not belong to one of the community's lineages), an "indigenous" mother (who does belong to one), and children from this union who are recognized by the community as truly indigenous. This reveals to us an important phenomenon for understanding the form that these indigenous communities use to reproduce their ethnicity: one can be indigenous by descendence or filiation, but not directly through marriage. In other words, a non-indigenous person does not become indigenous by marrying into an indigenous family. While such a possibility does exist in ethnic communities of other latitudes, the indigenous communities on this side of Nicaragua have not put it into practice.
It should be pointed out here that in the majority of the ethnic groups of the Pacific and central-north, there tends to be a preference in mixed marriages for the union to be between an indigenous woman and a non-indigenous man. This is also true in the rural Miskito communities of Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast. (See Marcos Membreno Idiáquez, "Los miskitos de Nicaragua: aculturación y conservación de una comunidad étnica," Cuadernos de Sociología, No. 14, Escuela de Sociología de la Universidad Centroamericana, Managua, septiembre-diciembre, 1991, pp. 36-46.) It seems to correspond to the existence of matrilocal forms of residency (as is clearly the Miskito case) or to the formation of matrifocal families (in which the head of the family is a woman) in situations in which the husband is absent from the home either temporarily (for work reasons) or permanently. All this shows that women play the primary role in reproducing the ethnic communities, since they are generally the permanent element in the family; the man, in contrast, is a relatively itinerant element.
The system of descendance or filiation operating in the ethnic groups of the Pacific and central-north permits these groups to reproduce themselves in very unfavorable demographic situations (reduction of their population, disequilibrium between the proportion of men and women, etc.). Thanks to this system they can recover all the children, even those that Nicaragua's national community would dub "mestizos," or non-indigenous, because they are the product of marriages between indigenous and non-indigenous. This is a powerful socio-cultural struggle between the Nicaraguan national community and the indigenous communities. By having the greatest possible flexibility in their own kinship structures, the indigenous communities make every effort to prevent their own children from being expropriated by the national community on the pretext that a good part of them are "mestizo" or "non-indigenous" simply by virtue of being the product of mixed marriages.
Following the armed rebellion of the indigenous community of Matagalpa in 1881, the national community created the myth of a "mestizo Nicaragua" as a way to deny the existence of indigenous communities in the Pacific and central-north regions. (See Jeffrey Gould, "El trabajo forzoso y las comunidades indígenas nicaragüenses," in Hector Pérez-Brignoli and Mario Samper (eds.), El café en la historia centroamericana, FLACSO, 1991.) This ideology, constructed on racial criteria, automatically converts all members of the ethnic communities in these areas into mestizos, or non-indigenous, which makes it easier to assimilate them into the Nicaraguan nation. Put in other terms, the ideology of crossbreeding aims at exterminating the ethnic groups of these regions. The worrisome thing is that this ideology is accepted by widely diverse sectors of Nicaraguan society, independent of political ideology, class position, educational level, religious belief or other factors.
Clan. The clan is the second kinship structure that distinguishes the ethnic communities in the Pacific and central-north from those forms found among the rest of the populations in these regions. Anthropology considers a clan to comprise all those men or women who are descended from a single ancestor (individual or collective) but cannot concretely demonstrate such a filial tie. This inability to demonstrate empirically that genealogical ties do or do not exist with an ancestor or group of ancestors is the fundamental difference that anthropology establishes between lineage and clan. That difference aside, both clan and lineage assure the continuity of the communities over successive generations, and even over centuries.
It is very probable that indigenous clans correspond to the old "parcialidades," or neighborhoods, into which the indigenous communities were territorially and administratively subdivided throughout the colonial period. (See Germán Romero, Las estructuras sociales de Nicaragua en el siglo XVIII, Managua, Editorial Vanguardia, 1988.) Together with lineages, these clans have obstinately continued to exist right up to today, despite José Zelaya's Liberal government at the turn of the century, despite the penetration of capitalist trade relations and despite the tendencies of the Sandinista revolution to statize, party-ize and nationalize Nicaraguan civil society.
For example, the indigenous community of Matagalpa is still subdivided into four such neighborhoods: Solingalpa, Molagúina, Pueblo Grande and Laborio, which seem to constitute four distinct clans. Until the middle of this century, the indigenous community of Sutiava was subdivided into two "parcialidades," which, in fact, were two endogamous clans: Pueblo Grande and Jiquilapa. It is also very probable that the subdivision of Monimbó into two distinct neighborhoods, "Upper Monimbó" and "Lower Monimbó," corresponded to two similarly distinct clans.
In current times, due to a series of demographic, economic, political and cultural factors, only one clan seems to exist instead of two in Sutiava and in Monimbó, and each corresponds to the respective indigenous community as a whole. In both cases, we have observed that the clan tends to be endogamous, although, as we have seen above, they permit exogamous marriages, preferably between women who belong to the indigenous community (i.e., the clan) and non-indigenous men.
Indigenous authorities: A variant of "tribal government"In the indigenous communities of the Pacific and central-north, we find two kinds of authorities. First are those we could call "traditional indigenous authorities," which are constituted and function according to a sort of non-written customary law of long tradition, but can, occasionally, adopt some of the forms of modern law. The names of this traditional authority structure vary from one indigenous community to another. In some, such as in Sutiava and Monimbó, it is called the "Council of Elders," while in others, Matagalpa, for example, it is represented by the figures of the First and Second Caciqué, or Chief. In general, these indigenous authorities are elders of the community who belong to old and prestigious lineages and enjoy enormous moral authority and the profound respect of the indigenous population.
Once they are elected and form part of these traditional political bodies, the individuals assume certain functions within them, which they fulfill perpetually.
The second kind of indigenous authority is made up of what we could call "modern-legal" structures, which are formed and function according to modern law and the existing decrees and laws of the Nicaraguan state. Unlike the traditional indigenous authority structures, this second kind is legally registered. (In 1914 and 1918, the Conservative governments issued various laws and decrees giving indigenous communities the possibility of acquiring legally registered status. These laws are still in effect.)
In general, this structure is known as the "board of directors" of the indigenous community, and its posts are now elected for six-year terms rather than for life. Elders of the community do not necessarily figure among the board's members, who, in many communities, are relatively young adults. Among the main functions of both kinds of authorities are the imparting of justice in disputes within the community and the administration of community lands.
Theoretically, the state recognizes the boards, not the traditional authorities, as the indigenous community's only legal interlocutors. In practice, however, municipal mayors and other local government officials whose presence has direct or indirect repercussions in the life of the indigenous communities usually pass over even these modem-legal indigenous authorities when making decisions that affect their communities.
Some indigenous communities in the Pacific and central-north do not have traditional indigenous authorities, only modern-legal ones. In many of them, the disappearance of the traditional authorities occurred in the first half of this century. Now, however, communities in which these authority figures disappeared due to the effects of the legal decrees to which we just referred have begun to raise the possibility, even the necessity, of reinstating the traditional authority structures.
The indigenous themselves have become aware of the strategic role the traditional indigenous authorities played in the conservation and cohesion of the community, which gave it greater strength and capacity for political pressure in asserting its ethnic claims.
We are most interested in noting here that the individuals elected by the community to function as indigenous authorities, whether they are "traditional" or "modern-legal," must necessarily be "indigenous" people—in other words, individuals are members of the community's clans or lineages. Communities do not recognize anyone as an ethnic political authority who does not belong to one of their clans or lineages. (During the revolutionary years, many FSLN leaders did not grasp this. They imposed their own candidates in elections for indigenous authorities, without understanding that the community simply did not recognize these candidates as "indigenous" because they did not belong to any of its lineages or clans.)
A person’s clan or lineage membership thus determines that individual’s access to the indigenous community’s internal government structures. The fact that these government structures may have little or no bureaucracy, since they are made up of very few people, reveals that the forms of "indigenous authorities" in effect in the indigenous communities on this side of the country today are similar to the "tribal governments" the Spanish conquerors encountered on their arrival to Nicaragua and those anthropologists have found, almost systematically, in societies misnamed "primitive." The fundamental characteristic of the majority of these societies is the same one we have discovered in the ethnic communities we have studied on this side of Nicaragua: structure and cohesion based on clan or lineage groups. (See Marshall Sahlins, Las sociedades tribales, Barcelona, Editorial Labor, 1984.)
To hold that indigenous communities of the Pacific and central-north of Nicaragua have a form of "tribal government" may seem improbable to many political and intellectual figures who have it in their heads that tribal political forms only exist in isolated and wild regions of Asia, Africa, South America, Australia, etc., communities in which the population dresses in little more than body paint and loin cloths. But it is unnecessary to go so far away: in several countries of Central America, ethnic groups use the term "tribe" to refer to their own organizational forms—the Jicaque of Honduras and Guaymí of Panama, to name just two. In countries such as Nicaragua and El Salvador, where the massive indigenous rebellions represented a serious threat to the nation-state in this century and at the end of the last one, and in which ethnic groups of entire regions lost the most visible signs of their "Indian-ness" (language, dress, etc.), the ideology of the "mestizo nation" has operated very effectively, penetrating deeply into all sectors of both countries' populations. For many, the statement that ethnic communities with tribal forms of government still exist in the Central and Pacific regions of both countries sounds like an exotic fantasy of a hack anthropologist.
Pacific and north-central indigenous: Mainly peasants and artisansThe indigenous populations of this side of the country are characterized by certain internal social class differentiation.
Among these populations, we find sectors belonging to the most diverse socioeconomic strata: petty bourgeoisie, peasantry, agricultural proletariat and semi-proletariat, industrial workers, employees in the formal economy, artisans, professionals and middle-level technicians. It is thus impossible to reduce the indigenous populations to a single social class or assign them in their totality to a single mode of production.
The majority of these populations, however, are peasants and artisans, most of whom are concentrated in Monimbó, working in small craft shops. The owners of these workshops adopt the form of "master" and directly participate in the production process, assisted by a few "apprentices" who are usually young relatives, children of neighbors or friends of the master. According to a small survey we carried out in January-February of this year of 60 indigenous members of Monimbó, 46.8% were artisans, 20.8% employees and 17% farmers. A similar survey done in the same months with 45 indigenous members of Sutiava showed that 48.8% were artisans and 27.9% farmers.
Artisans. In both communities, the strong presence of artisans is partly explained by the colonial period: during that time, Monimbó and Sutiava were two of Nicaragua's most important centers of artisan production. (See Germán Romero, cited above.) From then until today, the families and segments of lineage have seen to the transmission of the skills and techniques of their crafts production from generation to generation.
A second factor that also seems to have favored the development of artisan production in Sutiava and Monimbó is that both are urban indigenous communities, and respectively form part of two important cities in the Pacific: León and Masaya. These urban artisans have thus been more able to acquire raw materials and work tools. They also have easier access to a sizable domestic market for their products in an economy whose own industrial production has traditionally been unable to satisfy the demand for manufactured goods. Low-income sectors make up the bulk of the market for indigenous artisan production.
Beginning in 1990-91, however, many indigenous artisans began to abandon their traditional profession since their production of shoes, furniture, clothing, etc. cannot compete in quality or price with the goods being massively imported into the country as part of the UNO government's economic policies. These artisans are today unemployed or have become small merchants in the so-called urban informal sector. Particularly in Monimbó, where many indigenous defined their identity by their artisan work, the abandonment of this production, if it goes on for too long, will have an important impact on the redefinition of their indigenous identity.
Peasants. Peasants make up the other major socioeconomic sector of the Pacific and central-north indigenous groups. With the single exception of the Monimbó community—which is an interesting case because it shows that indigenous communities can exist even when they have lost their communal lands—all the indigenous groups of these regions have communal lands. These are assigned to indigenous peasants by the community's "modern-legal" authorities (the board of directors), in consultation with the "traditional" authorities (Councils of Elders, etc.).
The indigenous authorities assign plots of communal land to members of the community in usufruct. These recipients are called comuneros, or joint holders, and, except in the community of Veracruz, are generally not obliged to pay the annual lease tax for use of the lands because they belong to one of the community's clans or lineages. There are certain exceptions, however. For example, a comunero who has more than 85 acres of land is obliged to pay the lease tax, a practice that seems aimed at penalizing land accumulation in indigenous hands.
The indigenous authorities are also empowered to lease parcels to non-indigenous, in exchange for the lease tax. These people are referred to as leaseholders. A law dating back to June 26, 1935, which is still in effect, prohibits—in principle—the sale, transfer, mortgaging or attachment of indigenous communal lands.
Both big landowners and non-indigenous peasants, however, have employed multiple tactics to appropriate large extensions of communal lands, or have refused to pay the lease tax to the indigenous community; the state has done nothing to stop this despite continuous and insistent demands by the indigenous communities. During the revolutionary years, the FSLN itself violated the 1935 law by assigning indigenous community lands to various peasant cooperatives.
This reality refutes the idea that the indigenous communities in the Pacific and central-north lost all their lands in the aftermath of the laws issued by the Zelaya government at the turn of last century. The communal lands have neither disappeared completely nor do they represent only a legal fiction. What has happened, however, is that for some decades no government has been politically willing to put in order the complex and confusing situation that characterizes the land tenure structure within the vast extensions that still legally belong to the indigenous communities. Some data show the enormous extension of communal lands that are still the legal property of the indigenous communities of the Pacific and central north: Sébaco indigenous community, 300,000 acres; Jinotega indigenous community, 75,000 acres; Sutiava indigenous community, 68,000 acres.
The Creation of FENACIN. After several preparatory meetings, an Assembly of Indigenous Communities attended by the official representatives of the indigenous communities of Sébaco, Matagalpa, Muy Muy, Sutiava, Monimbó and Veracruz was held in the city of Sébaco on April 24 of this year. Official delegates of the Miskito organization YATAMA and the Coordinating Committee of Costeño Unity (CUC) also attended. That assembly resolved to legally create, in the presence of a notary public, the National Federation of Indigenous Communities of Nicaragua (FENACIN). This was done in the indigenous community of Sutiava, in León, on May 23, 1992.
The context that made the creation of FENACIN possible includes various international and national factors worth mentioning here.
At an international level, the first factor is the celebration of the fifth centennial anniversary of the arrival of the Spanish to America. Indigenous communities continent-wide have reinterpreted this moment as the commemoration of 500 years of indigenous resistance to colonialism and neo-colonialism, and to the ethnocidal policies of the national states. Second, the preparatory meetings, congresses and international seminars held in various countries, attended by indigenous from different regions of the American continent, have allowed Nicaragua's indigenous leaders to learn about ethnic organizational experiences in other countries.
At a national level, the autonomy process of Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast regions has unquestionably offered an important apprenticeship. Despite its errors and limitations, this process has permitted a glimpse of new paths in the search for ethnic organizations and alternative autonomy models for the indigenous communities of the Pacific and central-north regions as well.
Equally important to FENACIN's emergence has been the verification of the structural limitations of Nicaragua's major political parties in providing an adequate response to the indigenous communities' specific claims. This is as true of the Sandinistas and the parties affiliated to the UNO coalition today as it was of the Liberals and Conservatives in the past.
The political polarization recently characterizing Nicaraguan society, particularly since the UNO government took power, has been the last straw for the indigenous of the Pacific and central-north. They are thoroughly fed up with the divisions created within their respective communities by the confrontations between the FSLN and UNO. In their eyes, these are sterile divisions that have weakened their communities and have contributed to a certain disintegration of the communities.
Their aspiration is that FENACIN will stay outside of party interests and divisions to take up and channel the specifically ethnic claims of the country's Indigenous communities.
As FENACIN's official founding document makes clear, this indigenous federation will be governed by the following principles:
1) the unity of all indigenous communities in the struggle for their specifically ethnic claims;
2) affirmation of their filial relations with the indigenous who populated Nicaragua before the arrival of the Spanish;
3) rejection of the loss of their own values (communal unity and solidarity, respect for the elders and communal authorities, and recognition of the traditional role played by indigenous women within the communities);
4) affirmation of the common historical roots of all indigenous peoples of the American continent;
5) denunciation of the exploitation, pillage and genocide to which Nicaragua's indigenous communities were submitted, first by the Spanish colonizers and latter by the United States and the national governments;
6) the proclamation, based on the Nicaraguan Constitution's recognition of the multiethnic character of Nicaraguan society, of the right to organize as indigenous peoples, independent of the national political parties, which have only divided the communities internally;
7) adoption of the name Abya Yala to refer to the American continent (the name is in the Kuna language, and means "mother earth" or "land in full maturity");
8) an openness to ally with all sectors willing to struggle for the dignity of the indigenous peoples, social justice, development and Nicaragua's genuine independence.
The Assembly of Indigenous Communities that took place in Sébaco defined FENACIN's fundamental objectives:
a) to constitute a space for indigenous initiatives, both nationally and internationally;
b) to fight to recover the indigenous communities' full autonomy with respect to their autochthonous organizational forms and their respective cultural patrimonies;
c) to promote unity and solidarity among all the indigenous peoples of the American continent and among all the indigenous communities of Nicaragua;
d) to defend their communal lands and demand the return of all those that have been stripped from them;
e) to contribute to the development of a national legal system according to the interests of the indigenous communities;
f) to work so that Nicaraguan society will value and promote the rescue of indigenous cultural heritage, as part of the national culture;
g) to promote an educational system that incorporates indigenous customs, values and traditions;
h) to promote among the children and youth of the indigenous communities the rescue of their ancestral heritage;
i) to promote in the indigenous communities the training necessary for their economic development;
j) to struggle so that their communities are represented by their own local indigenous authorities and by FENACIN in nongovernmental organizations, the Indigenous Parliament and the branches and institutions of the state;
k) to promote the defense of ecological balance in the regions inhabited by the indigenous communities.
The Assembly of Indigenous Communities also resolved that all indigenous communities, movements or organizations in the country that identify with the principles and objectives of FENACIN may be members of the federation. In addition, it decided to create two maximum leadership bodies of FENACIN: the Indigenous National Congress, made up of the Assemblies of all the indigenous communities, movements or organizations affiliated with the federation; and the Indigenous National Council, structured according to the following positions: a Major Caciqué, or Coordinator; a Minor Caciqué, or Vice Coordinator; a Secretary; a Treasurer, an Auditor, and one Member-at-large for each federated organization. As long as FENACIN's future statutes do not stipulate otherwise, the official headquarters will be in the city of Masaya.
ConclusionWe have tried to go beyond the ideological myth of a "mestizo Nicaragua" to show that ethnic communities, in the strict use of the term, exist in Nicaragua's Pacific and central-north regions.
These communities, which call themselves "indigenous," possess internal social structure similar to the ethnic communities found not only in Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast, but also in other countries of the American continent, and even in societies of other continents. These similarities and observably homologous structures between the ethnic communities of the Pacific and central-north and those we find in other regions and latitudes exist despite the fact that the former have lost their maternal language, their traditional dress, their old forms of ritual organization, and even, in one case, their communal lands. The structural similarities to which we refer are fundamentally two: a) the internal cohesion of their respective populations based on clan and lineage structures; and b) the existence of tribal forms of government. FENACIN, which will request legal registration from the National Assembly very soon, is a federation that aims to respect and support the kinship structures and tribal government forms of the indigenous communities on this side of the country. In this sense, it goes beyond the political parties, state institutions, churches and religious denominations and other institutions of civil society whose actions, sometimes unconsciously, contribute in one way or another to the disintegration of these indigenous communities. For this reason, the creation of FENACIN offers hope for Nicaragua's indigenous communities. This is an enormous challenge for FENACIN's current leaders, not only because it falls to them to fight for the indigenous communities' demands and forge a unity among them that will not be free of obstacles, but also because this new federation has the possibility of playing an important role in building a genuine popular democracy in a multiethnic and pluri-cultural society such as ours.